Hard v soft: misrepresenting Brexit

19 Oct

Over the last few months the debate over Brexit has begun to change shape, and with it, a slow reshuffling of political alignments has taken place. Concerned about the crude xenophobic and nativist policies that were floated at the Tory party conference in September, both liberal Leavers and Remainers have been looking to forge alliances in order to help ensure they can fight for an open economy and a cosmopolitan society in the aftermath of Brexit. Since the ‘flash crash’ of pound sterling, the debate over whether Brexit will be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ has come to the fore, even as the pound’s declining value has been taken as vindication of Remainers’ predictions over the economic damage that would result from a Leave vote. In the wake of such a major economic and political shock, it is important that we not restrict ourselves to the misleading binary option of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit. Here, much depends on how the European Union (EU) is understood.

First, with regards to freedom of movement, the distinction between hard and soft Brexit is misleading in so far as it associates freedom of movement with the single market. On TCM we have consistently argued for open borders and against the EU for its punitive and murderous external border controls. The EU’s freedom of movement has been anything but soft on those many Africans and Asians seeking to escape dictatorship, poverty and war. ‘Soft’ Brexit should not therefore be associated with free movement of peoples or indeed an open economy. Conversely, there is no reason in principle that a decisive and thorough-going break with the EU could not be compatible with open borders either: open to EU citizens and to everyone else, too.

Second, the assumption that things will be economically ‘softer’ by remaining tightly bound to the EU and the single market is based on the untenable assumptions of ceteris paribus – of everything else being held constant, as if the Eurozone economy can be kept on life-support forever. The fragmentation of the Eurozone cannot be indefinitely postponed. Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat for the ills afflicting the Western world, but any honest Remainer must know that the challenges to the EU project run much deeper, reverberating from structural contradictions at the core of the project. The hand-wringing over the crash in sterling is premised on the UK as a gateway to European markets and the Eurozone, drawing in investments that resulted in the overvalued pound, which in turn helped to disguise underlying problems of the UK economy, such as its stagnant productivity. However much Remainers may gloat over the flash crash, the question remains: how is an overvalued currency an argument for soft Brexit, or for Remain?

The British electorate have not voted to leave the EU in the midst of a booming global economy, or to delink from an EU in its prime. The Eurozone is a disaster zone; those accusing Leave voters of ‘arson’ should look to those who ruined the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies. The EU is structurally malformed, lop-sided and riddled with contradictions. A vote for Remain was ultimately a bet on the long-term viability of the EU – and that is a proposition more delusional than even those Anglosphere nostalgics who become misty-eyed by the thought of trading with Australia. Whatever the medium- to long-term results of the devaluation in pound sterling, it needs to be said and said again that issues of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination cannot be reduced to an exercise in public accounting and currency fluctuations.

This takes us to the third and final point – the fact that the hard / soft dichotomy obscures the crucial political distinction. Remainers gloating over the financial markets’ curbing of British sovereignty miss the point. Sovereignty concerns the nature and location of political authority more than it concerns national power and prestige. The UK’s membership of the EU is a wholly different type of issue to its relationship with the single market. As we have argued on TCM, the EU evades popular sovereignty more than it restricts national sovereignty. The EU is not merely an association of nation-states that agree to restrict each other’s external choices for their mutual benefit. It is better understood as the institutional outgrowth of internal changes in each of its constituent states: this is the shift from nation-states to member-states. This transformation has seen the curbing of legislative oversight and the systematic exclusion of the public from political decision-making through cross-border elite cooperation. Popular sovereignty has been evaded for the administrative convenience of bureaucrats and executives.

Once this is understood, the debate over ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit can be seen in a different light. If ‘soft Brexit’ entails accepting certain EU regulatory structures in order to retain access to the single market, then an external restriction on the country’s trading choices may be acceptable if – and only if – it is seen as economically beneficial by the electorate and their representatives. The issue is who gets to decide. The British as a sovereign people can democratically decide to recognise the limits of their power and make a choice to abide by rules made by others in order to trade successfully. This is a question of contingent costs and benefits – quite different from membership of the EU, which degraded the internal sovereignty of the British state in so far as it enabled the government to evade political accountability for law-making.

For decades, the British public and parliaments have not been consulted on the question of whether the costs of EU regulation are outweighed by the benefits. The Brexit vote appropriately restores their right to decide. If Brexit requires the British public rationally to adapt to a lesser place in the world, so much the better: the EU facilitated delusions of British global power and reach. What is most important, then, is that the legal and political supremacy of state institutions has been reaffirmed – and with it the possibility for greater democratic accountability and political responsiveness.

The stagnation of the global economy, the growth of geopolitical rivalries, the populist assault on elitist political systems around the world: all these indicate that a cycle of global order is crumbling away, and with it an era of technocratic liberalism incarnated in the European Union more than any other political system. Whether we welcome or mourn these changes, we need to recognise that neither US hegemony nor the Brussels’ bureaucracy could last forever; to deny this is simply to deny change itself.

Philip Cunliffe and Peter Ramsay

Misinformed Voters: Another Brexit Myth that Refuses to Die

12 Sep

The Electoral Reform Society’s latest report, It’s Good to Talk, recycles – in the politest possible way – a treasured middle-class Remainer myth: that the Brexit vote was simply the result of ill-informed (or simply stupid) people voting to sabotage the country.

The ERS claims to show that there was a huge gap between voters’ very high levels of interest and their very low levels of information. Accordingly, they call for an inquiry into the conduct of referenda, and suggest mandatory six-month campaign periods, and the empowerment of the Electoral Commission or some other neutral technocratic body to issue official rule books, publish a ‘minimum data set’ to establish a truthful basis for debate, and to ‘intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated’. The ERS is thus joining a growing chorus against ‘post-truth politics’, echoing similar calls for more political regulation – already criticised on TCM by James Heartfield. The ERS also calls for a more deliberative approach to referenda, pushing its own approach of online toolkit plus face-to-face discussions, which it trialled during the campaign period.

Yet there is no real evidence that the public felt any less informed in this referendum than at any other time they are asked to vote. The ERS displays its own prejudices by starting its report with the worn-out canard that the phrase ‘What is the EU?’ was extensively Googled the day after the vote. In fact, fewer than 1,000 people did this. The ERS’s own data shows that the proportion of people feeling ill-informed shrank throughout the campaign, from 46% to 28%, while the proportion feeling very well/ well informed doubled to 33%.

The ERS still tries to claim that voters were more poorly informed than during the Scottish referendum, where ‘56% felt informed’ or 59% felt they could make an informed decision’. Yet, if one adds those reporting an ‘about average’ level of information to those feeling well/ very well informed, the overall number feeling ‘informed’ is clearly higher for the EU referendum, at around 63%. This figure is also higher than for the general election in 2015, and previous polls.

Nor is the ERS persuasive in arguing that voters’ sources of information were unduly limited. The data show that people drew from a vast range of sources, including media, political campaigners, social media, and their friends and family, to make up their minds, with no single source dominant. Voters certainly did not rely only on the claims of a few big name political campaigners in making their judgement – quite the opposite. That is surely a good thing, and surely preferable to relying on the Electoral Commission as the singular fountain of truth, as the ERS counsels.

The report also shows that people were incredibly sceptical of what they were hearing. 46% of voters felt politicians on both sides were mostly lying, versus 19% who thought they were mostly telling the truth; the figures are virtually identical for both Remain (47%) and Leave (46%). A majority also saw both campaigns as overwhelmingly negative.

So there is simply no evidence that people were particularly ill-informed, still less that ‘stupid’ voters were ‘brainwashed’, as many Remainers suggest. Most people displayed normal or above average levels of information; drew liberally from many sources; and assessed those sources sceptically. In other words, most people took their duty as citizens very seriously.

This is not to say that the campaigns were good – far from it. As TCM has argued, they were lamentable, with the nature and operation of the European Union barely discussed at all, whereas issues like immigration, taxation and healthcare were liberally and sometimes irrelevantly canvassed. If British citizens did their duty, it was in spite of the poor mainstream campaigns. But nonetheless, there is no solid evidence here to suggest that voters were any less informed in the referendum than for any other electoral event, such that special rules and regulations for referenda are urgently required. The standard of any campaigning period will naturally reflect the general quality of a democracy – and there are certainly no technical fixes for the profound malaise that British democracy finds itself in. Arguably, under the circumstances, citizens did pretty well.

If the data don’t support the idea of ill-informed voters and post-truth politics, why does this canard continue to be recycled, including by respected bodies like the ERS? Arguably it reflects a simplistic, elitist and technocratic outlook. In this worldview, there is an objective and neutral ‘truth’, established by ‘experts’. Any disagreement with these experts must therefore result either from a lack of access to this information (if one is being generous or polite), or sheer stupidity or malice (if one is not). This is why the ERS recommend both improved citizenship education in schools, intervention by technocratic authorities to establish the truth and quash campaigners making ‘inaccurate’ statements, and their own programme of ‘deliberative’ discussions, which allows experts and academics to dialogue with the great unwashed and correct their misapprehensions.

This is a naïve and degraded view of political contestation. It implicitly assumes that politics is no longer a fundamental clash of different values or interests, but instead a problem-solving exercise of comparing the costs and benefits of policy options, with appropriate technical input to ensure we make the ‘right’ choices. That political life is often conducted in this way is something to be lamented, not encouraged. All it reflects is the entrenchment of policies preferred by particular social groups as the only valid way of doing things, and the pre-defined exclusion of more transformational alternatives.

This viewpoint also expresses a childish notion of ‘truth’. It is absurd to imagine that the Electoral Commission can become an arbiter of truth by publishing a ‘minimum data set’ and intervening to correct ‘untruths’. First, all but the most rudimentary facts are inherently open to interpretation and contestation in political life. For instance, the Commission could have intervened to say that the UK’s net contribution to the EU was not £350m, as Leave campaigners claimed, but about £149m. But it could not have debunked the Leave campaign’s statement that £350m would be added to the NHS budget – because that is a political claim about the future, not something one can prove or disprove with reference to facts. Whether it comes true or not depends entirely on what political actors do next, including the general public. The same goes for the Remain campaign’s threat of a ‘punishment budget’ and two additional years of austerity – depicted as absolute necessities and since swiftly abandoned.

Secondly, even apparent statements of fact are often no more than vague predictions or preferences dressed up as scientific ‘evidence’. How would the Electoral Commission have been able, for example, to address competing claims that Brexit would either cost households £4,300 per year, or leave them better off? If the Commission had surveyed the experts, given the Remainer consensus among professional economists, the Treasury, the IMF and so forth, it would have presented the £4,300 claim, or something like it, as ‘fact’. Yet, their predictions have so far been found wanting. A mild recession seems possible, but not the economic collapse most ‘experts’ predicted.

How, then, are voters meant to make sense of such competing claims? How can they reach ‘the truth’ without some enlightened expert to tell then what it is? A partial answer is that each individual must judge the matter for themselves, and it not democratic to dictate the terms on which that judgement must be made. Ultimately politics is irreducible to ‘facts’; it always involves value judgements. We can seek to make these judgements better informed, but not through technocratic regulation. Rather, the answer is, ironically, a process the ERS itself favours: deliberation. Interestingly, as claims and counter-claims mounted, the proportion of voters relying on friends and family as ‘important sources of information’ grew to over a third, leading the ERS to highlight, positively, ‘an increasing reliance on real-life deliberation’. Once we abandon the childish notion of infallible truth in politics, as JS Mill argued, we can only move towards relative truth through open discussion that subjects different truth claims to sceptical scrutiny. All the evidence suggests that this is precisely what the British public did – in far greater numbers than the paltry 500 participants in ERS forums.

Lee Jones

Yanis Varoufakis’s fantasy politics

12 Sep

TCM contributing editor Lee Jones has a piece in Jacobin magazine critiquing Yanis Varoufakis and his DIEM 25 movement. You can read it here.


Invoke Article 50 Now: Depoliticising Brexit

1 Sep

Two months after the referendum, there seems to be little progress towards enacting the majority verdict that the UK should leave the EU. Indeed, some Remainers, like Labour leadership contender Owen Smith, are openly arguing that parliament should block Brexit or call another referendum. Suspicious Leave supporters see elites and technocrats conspiring to overturn the result, and are therefore demanding ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’. A demonstration is planned for 5 September, when Parliament will debate a massive petition demanding a re-run of the referendum.

At TCM, we have supported leaving the EU but some of us have also rejected the insistence on immediately invoking Article 50. This has drawn criticism from some Leave supporters, including one of our own contributors. Here we seek to clarify further why the focus on Article 50 is mistaken.

‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ is a simple, clear demand with apparent democratic content: the people mandated their representatives to leave the EU and doing so requires invoking Article 50 (unless Britain leaves unilaterally, breaking its international treaty obligations).

However, it’s also a demand that evades the key problem facing anyone wanting to ensure that the democratic moment of the referendum is meaningfully realised. The primary obstacle to this is not the machinations of disgruntled Remainer academics, lawyers and New Labour MPs. It is the Leave campaign’s lack of political clarity and the disarray of the Tory ministers tasked with implementing Brexit.. The anti-democratic Remainers will only get their chance if those responsible for Brexit drop the ball.

Despite being a Remainer, Teresa May cannot block Brexit because that would reopen the Conservative Party’s long-running civil war over Europe and defy the popular mandate to leave the EU, which was supported by 60% of Tory voters. This would end her career, and that’s why she insists that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. However, as we have argued, what Brexit means in practice is unclear, because the Leave campaign failed miserably to articulate a clear post-EU vision for Britain. Two months later, the Cabinet’s ‘Three Brexiteers’ (Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox) have barely managed to meet, let alone begin to rectify this. Instead they have indulged in pathetic squabbling over who gets how many civil servants.

This is not simply a narrow question of the Eurosceptics’ dubious competence or personal commitments. It reflects a deeper political problem. Tory Euroscepticism rejects European forms of government – with much inaccurate frothing about ‘Brussels’ supranationalism’ – in the name of Westminster traditions and parliamentary sovereignty. Since they have rarely given much thought to what sovereignty would actually be used for, beyond vague blather about free markets, they have little sense of what to do next. Moreover, the Leave vote expressed a much wider disenchantment with politics, including Westminster and, arguably, the free-marketeering that has left many Leave voters behind. Tory Eurosceptics’ prevarication reflects the inadequacy of their own substantive vision, and perhaps also a recognition that the limited ‘restoration’ they desire cannot begin to satisfy the disgruntled masses.

If Article 50 were invoked quickly, this might all be covered up. Sheltered by secret EU negotiations, politicians and civil servants could do a dirty deal with EU officials. In the absence of any alternative vision, this would most likely maintain most existing rules and regulations: ‘Brexit in name only’. This outcome would satisfy no-one.

The delay in invoking Article 50, then, is a necessary part of the democratic process. It may be unimpressive, but that reflects the state of Britain’s democracy. Parliament asked the electorate for instructions, and it got them: leave the EU. But since no-one put to the electorate any clear plans as to what that would involve, our elected representatives must now work out what Brexit will mean in practice.

This is hard because of the deeper crisis of representative politics. At TCM we have argued that the EU is a product of the decline of political representation within European states. As European governments’ political relationships with their constituents weakened, they looked to each other for the authority that they can no longer find at home. That decline of national, representative politics is reflected in both the political disenchantment of Leave voters, and the post-referendum disarray and dissolution of Britain’s entire political class – not merely the Eurosceptics. Nobody now seems to be sure how to pick up the extraordinary popular mandate created by the referendum and to politicize it by developing specific proposals on immigration, citizenship, trade, security and so on. That includes those who merely call for Article 50 to be invoked, without offering anything more.

It might be different if the slogan ‘Invoke Article 50’ were accompanied by ‘and stay in the single market’, or ‘and negotiate a trade deal that includes (or excludes) free movement of people’ – or whatever. Such concrete political positions might resolve the impasse, and might help to revive democratic politics by offering the British and the wider European public some political direction. But demanding that Article 50 be invoked without offering that direction simply leaves the task to others.

The question of the free movement of people, for example, is not some boring technical detail that can be sorted out by experts. It is a highly charged political issue, central to both the referendum campaign and wider European politics. It will be a key aspect of Brexit negotiations. ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ says nothing about what Britain’s approach should be; it merely evades the question – and every other issue of substance.

It is for this reason that ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ is a populist demand. It rhetorically invokes the people’s will and demands that the political class act upon it. But by failing to offer substantive direction, the decrepit, technocratic political class is left free to determine what actually happens in practice. The demand appears radically democratic in form but, by avoiding difficult and unresolved questions, it is depoliticizing in content.

No doubt, formulating concrete proposals is hard. Over the past 30 years, as domestic political contestation has been hollowed out across Europe, we have lost the habit of generating transformational political programmes. Called upon now to do so, our political class trembles at the threshold. Pushing them through the door by invoking Article 50 would not suddenly resolve their lack of concrete ideas. It would merely encourage them to grope for the easiest option of ‘Brexit in name only’. It is more important, then, to articulate concrete demands and insist that our representatives act on these. To their credit, some groups have been trying to do this. The Leave Alliance has formulated an incredibly detailed plan for ‘Flexcit’, while the campaign group 38 Degrees has crowd-sourced a concrete set of demands to shape the Brexit negotiations. Whatever their limitations, they are at least engaged in the hard task of working out what, substantively, should come next. Article 50 campaigners are not. Their slogan is a bold sounding but essentially risk-free demand. When Article 50 is invoked, which will most likely happen, given the government’s political stance, these campaigners can claim a victory and move on. If the Brexiteers screw it up and Article 50 is never invoked, they can say, ‘we told you so’. It’s a cheap way of making some friends among those sympathetic to democracy, but it diverts attention from the true obstacles to reviving democracy.

Peter Ramsay, Philip Cunliffe, Nicholas Frayn and Lee Jones



PostRefRacism: How Big a Problem is it Really?

3 Aug

PostRefRacism, a Twitter account set up to document post-referendum racist incidents, has just released a report on post-referendum racism in Britain. Compiled with input from similar groups, Worrying Signs and iStreetWatch, and endorsed by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), the report garnered widespread media attention in the past week, as did police data revealing a 20% spike in reported ‘hate crime’ after the referendum, with a total 6,000 incidents.

PostRefRacism’s report is potentially useful in breaking down this alarming headline figure, given its exclusive focus on racism. It identifies 636 individual reports of ‘racist and xenophobic hate crime’ – less than 11% of the total ‘hate crime’ figure released by police – of which 88% involved verbal abuse or ‘propaganda’. Of course, Twitter usage is hardly universal. But PostRefRacism worked very hard to reach this figure. With its 10,000 followers, it received nearly 99,000 tweets from 25 June to 4 July. However, 80% of these were generic expressions of concern, with only 20% reporting actual incidents, boiling down to only 636 separate cases – 25% of which were hearsay, and none of which have been verified.

The report’s most troubling claim is that 51% of these incidents ‘referred specifically to the referendum’, while 14% affected children, 12% were Islamophobic, and 4% were ‘other’. However, 51% of the 636 incidents fit into none of these categories. That is, at most 159 cases (51% of 51%) ‘referred specifically to the referendum’. Assuming they were all perpetrated by individual ‘leave’ voters, that leaves 17,410,583 Leavers who did not abuse anyone, despite a third saying they were primarily motivated to restore immigration controls – not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, there are about 853,000 Poles living in Britain, but PostRefRacism recorded only 54 incidents where Poles were the reported victims (0.00006%).

Clearly, there is the possibility of under-reporting, and even one incident is one too many. Verbal abuse can be desperately upsetting for victims, and we should stand in full solidarity with them. But in a country as populous and diverse as Britain, do these figures really demonstrate widespread racist intolerance?

We must also ask what the phrase ‘referred specifically to the referendum’ actually means. Sometimes there is a clear (albeit obtuse) link: someone saying ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out’. But more often, reports seem to involve generic phrases like ‘go home’ (74 stories), ‘leave’ (80 stories) and ‘fuck off’ (45 stories). Reprehensible as such comments are, it’s unclear why we should attribute them ‘specifically to the referendum’. Racist bigots have been telling non-white people to ‘go home’ for decades – it is a standard, despicable trope. The IRR’s own digest, which provides substantive detail of each case, involves many such outbursts – most of which cannot plausibly be linked to the referendum. The ethnic breakdown of reported victims – only 21% of whom are identified as Europeans – also suggests continuity with long-established patterns of racism against non-whites. The geographic pattern of incidents also fails to correlate with the ‘leave’ vote, with 44% originating in London.

The data thus boil down to a statistical uptick in an underlying current of low-level racist activity. As James Aber has argued here on TCM, a tiny, hard-core minority of racist individuals, who existed prior to the referendum, apparently felt emboldened to be more abusive following the result. Alarmist reports that made it appear that their attitudes were widely shared may even have emboldened them further. But such upticks are not new; far larger surges invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The smaller uptick in Britain does not necessarily indicate any longer-term realignment. Polls on voting intentions do not suggest any shift towards right-wing parties. There is no surge for UKIP, still less for the British National Party – who, let us not forget, garnered just 1,667 votes in the 2015 general election. Conversely, there is overwhelming public support – 84% – for the residency rights of EU nationals already living in Britain. No doubt, racism must continue to be challenged – but, as Philip Cunliffe argues on TCM, we do not need the EU to do this.

This analysis is necessary not to dismiss the experience of racism but to understand it and shape appropriate responses. As Stathis Kouvelakis warns British leftists, embracing this discourse of widespread working-class racism is seriously detrimental to any progressive agenda, particularly if one believes it is historically embedded into the English character, as some now argue. It destroys the notion that the vast majority of the population are capable of acting as agents of progressive social, political and economic change. It fuels instead either liberal insistence on containing and suppressing mass sentiment, Labour-rightists’ pandering to anti-immigration attitudes, or right-wing populist efforts to exacerbate and exploit ethnic divisions.

Rather than aiding the enemy, leftists ought to be challenging these slanders against the white working classes and asking why, as Kouvelakis puts it, class struggle is being distorted into anti-immigration sentiment that, in its nastiest form, shades into racism. As we have argued, simply decrying racism merely evades this fundamental question. The answer is obvious enough. Following the crushing defeat of organised labour in the 1980s, the political class has practised 30 years of neoliberalism, resulting in flat-lining wages and living standards, followed by eight years of austerity in which real wages have fallen at the same rate as those in crisis-struck Greece. Social security, housing and decent work are all dwindling. Politicians of all stripes absolutely insist ‘there is no alternative’ to this shrinking pie – yet then admit millions of new mouths to share it. In this context, it can surprise no-one that a defence of living standards takes the form of resistance to immigration. Indeed, the hegemony of TINA makes anti-immigration sentiment a structural feature of political life. It is this hegemony that the left must challenge.

Lee Jones

After Brexit: ending out-sourced anti-racism

2 Aug

According to much of what one reads and sees today, Britain is a smaller, meaner and nastier place after the vote to leave the European Union (EU) one month ago. According to reports across the media, there has been an explosion of nativist outbursts and xenophobic violence around the country, ranging from public aggression and hostility towards people of colour to an attempted firebombing of a halal butchers and a Polish family in Plymouth. However much trends and reports shared on social media should be treated with caution, and however far we are from the virulent racism of the 1970s when organised National Front gangs could terrorise ethnic minorities with impunity, there clearly seems to have been a public swell of xenophobia since the Brexit vote. Friends of mine whom I (obviously) have no reason to doubt or disbelieve have experienced open racist aggression towards them since the referendum – sometimes for the first time in their lives. However if it truly was the EU that provided a bulwark against such racism, then this should give every Remain voter, would-be progressive and anti-racist pause for serious thought.

On the face of it, it would seem self-evident that a vote to delink your country from a continental organisation based on cross-border institutions and cosmopolitan values would lead to strengthened national and xenophobic sentiment. Yet to accept this proposition would be immediately to admit defeat on issues of xenophobia and racism. Indeed, it would be to admit defeat long before the Brexit vote even happened. If anti-racism really was dependent on Britain’s political link to Brussels, this would only be to say that values championed by the left have no enduring social and political basis at the national level. If anti-racism was truly dependent on an organisation as thinly-stretched, weakly-institutionalised and undemocratic as the EU, then it would be simpler to say that political anti-racism had no real foundations whatsoever, except in EU rhetoric about ‘values’. Anyone who thinks that Brexit has caused racism should be asking themselves why they had been so complacent for so long before the Brexit vote that they had ended up investing all their hopes for racial inclusion and diversity in an institution as bankrupt as the EU. Why did the left out-source anti-racism to such a profoundly problematic institution? That should be the real question for the left after Brexit, more than theory-mongering about Britain’s imperial identities  – an organisation whose very own representatives ironically enough openly described the EU as a new type of imperial project.

If we consider things a little more closely, then the notion that the EU provided any kind of rampart against racism begins to fall away. The EU has drowned tens of thousands of Africans in the Mediterranean – a record of racial mass murder that outdoes any of the far-right populist parties that have never wielded national power, whether that be in Austria, Britain, France or Germany. By building Fortress Europe with its miles of barbed wire, military patrols and odious deals with neighbouring states, it is the EU that has contributed to the siege-mentality gripping European countries, solidifying popular fears that they are being overwhelmed by migrants. The much-vaunted freedom of movement within the EU was always its greatest lie. Not only did this ‘freedom’ come at the cost of the EU’s bloody outer borders, but even within the EU itself, such freedom was always qualified, limited and stratified, especially for Easterners. Western states opted to limit migration after the accession of new Eastern states to the Union for years at a time, while Roma citizens were punished for exercising their right to freedom of movement.

Not only does all this further expose the catastrophe of vesting anti-racism in the EU, it also suggests that the vote to the leave the EU offers no meaningful explanation of post-Brexit xenophobia. As many have already pointed out, the idea that even a significant minority of all the 17.4 million Brexit voters are racists simply does not stand to reason. Unsurprisingly, a Remain campaign that insisted that a Leave vote was xenophobic ended up emboldening xenophobes after Brexit. Whatever the post-Brexit wave of xenophobia may represent, what it does not embody is the resurgence of any imperial racial or ultranationalism. To attribute the new xenophobia to resurgent imperial and racial nationalism is as delusional as the free market and libertarian Leave campaigners who stammered about the ‘Anglosphere’ – the politically correct code for the old empire – that Britain could join once it left the EU. Both positions are mirror images of the other, fixated on a receding imperial past and missing what is happening in front of them. The constitutional framework of the old imperial state that packaged its imperial nationalism – the United Kingdom – is itself unravelling and fragmenting, regardless of whether or not Scotland goes independent.

To the extent that Little Englander xenophobia has emerged from the Brexit vote, it is no resurgence of an atavistic past, but fully in keeping with today’s identity politics. The cosmopolitan and multicultural values championed by the EU have functioned as intended, to fragment mass politics by proliferating minority identities competing for the grace and favour of the state. Identity politics also helped to suppress and undercut old trade union demands for greater power, higher wages and redistribution as selfish, blinkered majoritarianism riding roughshod over minorities and oblivious to the outside world. Everyone was entitled to a special state-sanctioned identity, except the white working class. In truth, Little Englander nationalism is the logical end-point of cosmopolitan multiculturalism – it is identity politics for the ‘left behind’. If Brexit dealt a blow to EU cosmopolitanism and a boost to majoritarian democracy by giving people political control over their lives, it also has the potential to strike a blow against identity politics, too – including Little Englander nationalism.

Philip Cunliffe

Where Does the Truth Lie?

1 Aug

Does the UK need an Office of Electoral Integrity? Guest contributor James Heartfield thinks not.

*  *  *

An early day motion in the House of Commons calls for a new public body to make people tell the truth. It has some appeal for many voters who think that politicians are liars. The argument has more legs since the referendum campaign. The Change.org campaigners who got a hundred thousand people to sign a petition calling for the new ‘Office of Electoral Integrity’ were moved by what they saw as the lies told by the two sides in the referendum campaign.

Lies are not an assault on democracy, they are a part of it. If we were not fallible people, but angels, who could see through all illusions, and were incapable of lying, there would be no differences of opinion, or factions, and no need for democracy: everything would be immediately apparent. But because we are not angels, the best means we know of reaching, if not ‘the truth’ at least a truer picture, is by arguing amongst ourselves, so that the wilder lies are exposed as such. That happened in the referendum debate. The leave side’s claim that they would spend £350million on the NHS was widely and universally ridiculed; the Remain side’s claim that the economy would disintegrate, too, was exposed as a shameless exaggeration. This was not a travesty of democracy, but, for the first time in a long time, a democratic debate that truly examined the issues before us, soberly, and with great intent.

Among the middle class activists of Change.org and the Labour MPs who signed the Early Day Motion, like Margaret Hodge and David Lammy, the idea of enforcing truth in politics appeals because they cannot believe that, or understand why they have lost an argument. So sure are they in themselves that their ideas were pure and true, they can only really believe that dissent from them must come about by ignorance or deception. But that is only because they are not really asking themselves what it is about their own ideas that is less than convincing. The invincible redoubt they want to erect around the one true view only shows how weak that view really is. Rather than take the difficult step of asking what they have got wrong, they want to call for an ombudsman to rule ‘lies’ out of order.

In the 2000s, legislators called for evidence-based policy, deploring the way that policy-making had been captured by interest groups and lobbies. As the greater ideological differences between the Labour and Tory front benches were closing, it seemed that there would be a new era of policy that arose out of simple uncontested facts, rather than dogmatic beliefs. That was a dream, though. The hope that policy would be uncontentious could only come about by silencing opposition. The practical history of evidence-based policy, as all the wags knew, was one of policy-based evidence: namely that social scientists and pollsters manufactured evidence on demand, just as legislators cherry-picked that that suited their preconceived beliefs.

The apotheosis of evidence-based policy was John Scarlett’s report to the Joint Intelligence Chiefs that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein incontrovertibly held weapons of mass destruction. This cooked-up report was used to brow-beat MPs into supporting the decision to wage war in Iraq – an evidence-based policy. Other instances of the same included the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a legal constraint on behaviour that was proved by psychologists and social scientists to be the best way of dealing with the problem – until it proved to be a disaster. Before that ecological economists persuaded the Conservative government to introduce a fuel tax escalator in 1993 to dissuade people from driving cars that had to be abandoned in the face of widespread hostility.

All of these policies were based on the New Public Management theory that contentious issues had to be taken out of the hands of elected politicians, answerable to a volatile public, and put instead into the hands of experts, guided only by the truth. But characteristically the experts got things wrong, mistaking their own prejudices for the unadorned truth, and also they were unable to win the public support that policies need to be successful.

The view that there are lies here and the truth there is fine for children. But in reality there are of course grey areas, one-sidedness and misunderstandings. Even more frustrating for those defenders of the one truth, things change, so that what was obviously unfounded one day, becomes the norm the next. ‘When the facts change, I change my mind,’ Keynes said, adding ‘what do you do?’ And even more frustratingly, beliefs themselves can pass from being subjective fancies to objective realities. This last prospect causes lasting dread among the middle class commentators who call it ‘post-factual politics’.

In a letter to Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx chided his old friend for making the truth into something like a god, which the people must obey:

we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

Argument and debate are the route to a better understanding. The fantasy of appointed guardians of the truth, striking down error, is the road to doctrinaire, authoritarian and indeed inefficient government.


%d bloggers like this: